Episode 125

A gentle autumn wind drifts across the placid lake. With each gust, ripples form along the surface of the water and radiate out to the surrounding shore. Two people in plain clothes stand upon a patch of damp grass before a muddy incline into the lake. Tik crosses his arms, flicks his furry ears, and wrestles a grimace on his face. Resting her hands on her hips, Verkari hisses a long sigh through her gritted teeth and fights against a shallow frown. She draws a breath in, turns her purple eyed gaze towards Tik, and tilts her head of long, tied-back black hair. “So... Um...”

Tik mains a stare distantly towards the middle of the lake, grumbles out a groan, and twists his mouth to briefly reveal his pronounced canines. “Yeah...”

Verkari pivots her attention back upon the water and rocks her head curiously to the other shoulder while shifting her weight between her feet. The two settle both their gazes upon a fast food cup bobbing in the water of the middle of the lake. Tik scratches the back of his short, reddish head of hair, furrows his brow, and narrows his stare upon the container, with plastic straw out the top. Verkari grimaces as she straightens her posture, and eyes Tik uncertainly. “It’s got to be in that cup.”

She pulls out a small device with a touchscreen, taps a few buttons, and watches a signal strength indicator. After panning the front of the device over the breadth of the lake, she settles the aim upon the strongest readings and follows the direction of the device towards the floating fast food cup. Tik glances over, nods at the tracking system indicators, and sighs. “Gods, I’ve got so many questions right now.”

Verkari slips the device back into her pants pocket and ponders out loud with an indignant wave towards the water. “I know. How did they even KNOW there was something there? I didn’t detect any magical spells to alert anyone. And, I placed it in a really good spot that would have been out of the way for even a thorough inspection.”

Shaking his head, Tik picks at his claw tips on a hand and sighs. “Without it regularly transmitting, it shouldn’t have been picked up. At least, not so soon.”

Nodding in agreement, Verkari watches another cool gust of wind ripple the surface of the water, and the fast food vessel drifts with gentle waves. She shakes her head incredulously and crosses her arms. “The log indicates it started to move, at three in the morning. Why would anyone be up that late and checking that far underneath their car after a rain storm?”

Tik motions his hand out towards the bobbing cup and contorts his pale face as disbelief surges. “I still can’t figure out the gods damned cup. I could understand if the thing fell off. Or, was just tossed into the woods. But, THIS? THIS took some effort. There was INTENT behind this.”

Verkari works her dark tan face into a frown and huffs. “Well, no more tracking devices. It must be some kind of precaution with them. A bit paranoid if you ask me, especially when you are parking in your own home.”

Lifting up an eye brow, a dry smirk grows on Tik, and he rolls his dark blue eyes. “Well, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.”

Rubbing her eyes into a pinch of the bridge of her nose, Verkari cracks a wry smile and sighs with a slight shake of her head. “Gods, I guess. So, hidden cameras with telescopic lenses? I think I’ve seen a few spots that could work out well enough.”

Tik nods in agreement, hangs his arms at his sides, and wrestles a grimace. “Yeah. We don’t want to risk them getting even more paranoid than usual.”

He cautiously steps up to the edge of the lake, kneels down close to the muddy shoreline, and dips a clawed finger into the water. An uncomfortable curl warps the frown on his face as dread dredges up discomforts past. Verkari shifts her weight between soggy earth and holds her arms out for brief balance. “So. That’s the plan for the future. What should we do about the, um, current situation?”

The two stare out across the lake surface and observe the feud between water and wind currents, keeping the cup deadlocked in the middle from the shores. Tik stands up slowly and glances over his shoulder at Verkari. “You don’t happen to know a spell that can bring it to the shore?”

Gritting her teeth briefly, Verkari sighs and shakes her head with a mild frown. “No. It’s too far out for me. And, anything else I have... Might push it further away?”

The idle of wag of Tik’s tail dies down to an uncomfortable waver, and he tenses against bubbling hesitance. Verkari perks her brow and gazes at Tik. “I take it you got nothing else that’d help?”

Drawing in a long breath, Tik snorts to an uneasy smirk and rolls his eyes. “We’ve already risked one piece of government property. I don’t want to risk anything else trying to retrieve it.”

He narrows his stare and pans his gaze around the vicinity. Focusing through the residual morning fog, his furry ears flick around and hunt for stray noises. Drawing in a deep breath, he exhales to a slump of the shoulders and mumbles. “Well, fuck...”

He unzips his jacket off and holds it out for Verkari. “Could you take this, please?”

Verkari places the garment over her arm and eyes Tik curiously. “Are you going to...?”

Tik simply nods as he kneels down and unties his bootlaces. “Yes. We could spend hours trying to figure out other options. Or, I can just swim out, grab it, and be done with it.”

He cracks a smirk and glances up to Verkari. “Plus, it’s only fair. You got wet yesterday. My turn today.”

Slipping out of his boots and socks, he stands upon the wet grass and stretches as the morning chill sinks into his skin. Flexing his toe claws into the dirt, a bit of relief plays out on his face. “If it was a little warmer, this might be enjoyable.”

Verkari checks the nearby woods and scans across the lake as she cringes with the prospect. “You’ll have to excuse me, if I don’t stop you. That water looks really cold.”

After dropping his t-shirt upon Verkari’s arm, Tik unbuckles his pants and sighs with what little humor remains. “Just have a spell ready to dry me off. That’s all I ask. Also, be ready to pull leeches off of me.”

Verkari gazes over Tik’s fit form and subdues a smirk. She averts her purple eyes back towards the fast food cup. “Will do.”

Cinching up his boxers, Tik steps close to the edge of the shore. He stares down into the clearer water as glimpses of the bottom reveal themselves and manages a nod against his pleading comfort. He steps a few meters back. With a full sprint, he leaps into the water. Breaking surface from below a few meters closer towards the cup, he breaststrokes as fvalian curses color the splashing of water with each breath. Verkari vainly tries to quell a sly, amused smile, between watchful glances around the area.

Rolling her shoulders within her suit of red plate armor, Dretphi hoists up the multi-barreled machine gun and tightens her grip on the handles. Focusing her emerald green gaze upon the device, Cideeda hover a claw tip over weapon as she inspects minor mechanisms. After a tug upon the ammunition belt leading into the machine, she straightens her posture. She sweeps once last cursory check over the surface of the machine, and nods to herself. “It should be ready for a test firing.”

Stepping cautiously away, Cideeda walks around a tall, translucent golden barrier curved behind Dretphi, and skips over next to Bach. Dretphi quirks her brow, glances over her shoulder at the retreating fvalian, and narrows a suspicious stare. “Is there something I should know?”

Perking her furry ears up, Cideeda dons a toothy grin and shakes her head of short, multi-colored hair. “Huh? Oh. No. I just want to take every precaution. Murphy is always around and...”

Darting her emerald green eyes around the top of her mind, she twists a smirk on her light brown face and chuckles awkwardly. “It is a heavily modified device of ancient origin, that’s been tweaked and tuned to degrees it was never designed for.”

Bach blinks blankly and stares at Cideeda as Dretphi furrows her brow. Cideeda sighs with a hand upon her chest and glances up between Bach and Dretphi. “I’m confident I did everything right and individual tests have confirmed it. But, this still is A LOT of opportunity for Murphy to strike in one place.”

Dretphi ponders a moment and nods understandingly with an encouraging smirk. “Okay.”

She lets go of the vertical rear grip, lowers her full face visor down to a locking seal, and braces herself. Bach gazes down at the nervously squirming Cideeda with a reassuring tone. “I’m sure it’ll work just fine. All the parts we fashioned were to your specifications. And, well, all the tests before this point worked.”

Sliding her eyes up to Bach, Cideeda presents comforted smile while flits of anxiety tries to sneak in. She hisses out a slow exhale. “I know, I know. It’s just feels different when you do a full test of something completely assembled.”

She waves her hand with her thoughts and tenses her shoulders. “I mean, it’s one thing to check to see if the motor can spin and the bearings don’t bind. Even test firing by turning the barrels into position one shot at a time isn’t that demanding. Just...”

Bach nods in agreement and whispers. “Yeah, I think I get it. Kinda like teaching Sotalia the disintegration ball spell. Individual parts are one thing...”

Cideeda grimaces as commiseration quells anxious energy. “Everything working together correctly is something completely different.”

Both focus ahead and watch Dretphi experiment with arm positions to hold the minigun. Settling upon one, Dretphi levels the weapon at an angled metal target a distance away from the side of the ranch style house. Bracing the machine against herself, she glances over her shoulder and speaks through her helmet’s speaker system. “Ready.”

Cideeda catches Bach’s attention, motions her hands to her ears, and calls out. “Pull the barrel lock, turn on the drive motor, and turn off the safety.”

Glancing over the machine, Dretphi pulls back a pin, flips a power switch, and twists a knob indicator to the first red painted section. Cideeda leans to the side and inspects the machine at a distance. Spotting the correct mechanical positions and lights on, she covers her ears and calls out. “Click the trigger twelve times. It should fire twelve single shots. After that, stop.”

Bach finishes sending a message on his aetherphone, pockets the device, and follows Cideeda’s example with his fingers firmly pressing his ears closed. After checking on Bach, Cideeda shouts out. “Go!”

Dretphi moves her finger near the trigger upon the rear vertical grip, rests it carefully upon the red painted metal, and adjust her aim. As Dretphi squeezes the trigger, the barrel assembly smoothly rotates in preparation. A muffled click sounds out to a loud bang. A projectile fractures off the corner of the metal target and fragments deflect into the surrounding grass.

Dretphi furrows her brow, carefully adjusts her aim, and tenses her body. Another squeeze of the trigger sends another round the down the range. A bullet bounces off the target closer to the middle. Focusing herself, Dretphi braces and readies her trigger finger. Shot after shot rings out. The metal plate hung by chains shakes as rounds juggle it around. The final, twelfth report echoes out. Dretphi twists the mode knob back to the green, flips the power switch, and slides the barrel lock into place.

At Dretphi’s signal, Bach and Cideeda uncover their ears. Cideeda cracks a hopeful grin and steps around to Dretphi’s side. “So, what do you think?”

Dretphi flips up her full face visor, and smirks eagerly. “Ready to try full speed.”

After examining the minigun, Cideeda glances up to Dretphi with a twist to her smile and chuckles. “Let’s do a slow spin burst first. Then, we’ll do the full burst.”

Venting out stale disappointment through her nose, Dretphi nods in agreement and readies herself. Cideeda rushes back over to Bach’s side and watches Dretphi ready the device. Bach observes the process and directs his curious tone downwards. “How did you get a minigun to do single shot? I know you mentioned something while I was making some parts, but I didn’t catch all of it.”

Cideeda cracks a proud grin and shrugs her shoulders while wagging of her long, fluffy tail. “Oh, the hardware is simple. You just put a ridiculously powerful stepper motor on it.”

Wincing briefly with a frown, she groans with a roll of her emerald green eyes. “Now the sensors and software. Gods, that was the painful part with getting the timing and cycling right.”

She gazes up at Bach with a smile. “It’s precise enough for it to work. Unfortunately, it will never have the firing rate it did before. But, Dretphi shouldn’t need either of those for what it’ll be used for now on.”

Pausing her preparations, Dretphi slowly pivots her helmeted head and stares over her shoulder at Cideeda. Furrowing her brow, Cideeda rolls her eyes and groans into sigh. “Sorry that I don’t want to you spin around like a pinwheel of death!”

Dretphi grumbles to herself with a dismissive, prideful snort, and braces herself. “READY.”

Cideeda holds her hand close to her ears and calls out. “A few second, slow burst.”

Glancing up to Bach with a wry smirk, Cideeda sighs quietly. “Anyway, at full speed, you’d use up all your ammo in seconds.”

When both Bach and Cideeda firmly cover their ears, Cideeda yells out. “Go!”

Leveling her aim, Dretphi tenses her armored form and pulls the trigger. The barrels spin up to a constant speed, and a stream of bullets fly down the range. The hanging target at the end of the rattles upwards against the volley impacts. Flecks of shattered metal pelt the ground below and behind it. After a few seconds, Dretphi releases the trigger, engages the safety, and deactivates the weapon. With an eager grin wide on her tan face, she directs her gaze straight upon Cideeda and calls out. “Full auto?”

Cideeda leans out, and squints as she inspects the weapon when Dretphi hoists it up into better view. She flicks her furry ears as calculations weigh the risks. She grants a nod and resigns with a sigh. “Might as well let you have your fun. Get ready, and I’ll tell you when to go.”

Dretphi swiftly aims, reactivates, and disengages the safety. She turns the mode knob indicator to a brightly red painted section with multiple exclamation marks etched into it. Cideeda steps back and slinks behind Bach. Watching this, Bach blinks his eyes to a glowing blue and holds his hand out. Hexagons of flow form into a growing translucent, golden screen in front of Bach and Cideeda. Seconds later, the barrier anchors into the ground, and Bach nods reassuringly to Cideeda. “Got us covered.”

An appreciative smile appears on Cideeda’s face, and she quietly whispers. “Thanks. I just don’t know if physics or Dretphi is going to win out on this test.”

Bach nods understandingly. Both Bach and Cideeda cover their ears and watch ahead. Cideeda calls out. “Go!”

Dretphi pulls the trigger without delay. The weapon tries to torque around the rotating assembly in a bid of freedom from Dretphi’s unyielding grip. A volley of metal erupts from fire leaving the spinning barrels. The recoil drives the weapon against Dretphi as her muscles force it in place. The powerful, explosive roar echoes out, and violent vibrations ripple through Dretphi’s body. Surprise leaps out upon her face, but a surge of determination forces it back down doubt. Sparks erupt off the metal plate, supporting chains, and anchored framework under torrent of slugs. The cacophony of gunfire abruptly halts as the last casing drops out of the machine and clinks upon a pile of linkage hardware and brass. The motor drones on as muffled clicks punctuate the servo whine. Dretphi releases the trigger, deftly engages the safeties, and quickly locks down the machine.

She stands in the relative silence, draws in deep breaths, and gradually relaxes her tall, armored form. Bach and Cideeda expectantly observe from behind their protective barrier. Furrowing his brow curiously, Bach whispers down at Cideeda. “Is she okay?”

Cracking a smirk and showing a pronounced canine, Cideeda giggles to herself and pats Bach on the shoulder. “She’s having a moment. Don’t worry. Give her a second.”

Bach tilts his head to the side, glances over to battered firing range target, and speaks in a low tone. “Now I see why you insisted on firing down from standing position and checking the angles into the forest.”

Cideeda nods knowingly with a tight smile. Dretphi shudders back to awareness, pivots around, and walks towards Bach and Cideeda as a hint of a skip slips into her step. She flips up her full face visor and grins brightly. “It worked!”

Cideeda smiles proudly and crosses her arms confidently as if doubt had just not visited. “We saw. Good. Looks like I dialed in the right speed for you.”

Bach nods in agreement and points at the target. “Yeah, you kept it pretty much on target. That was really impressive.”

A warm smile graces Dretphi’s face as she glances over to Bach. “Thank you.”

She curls an apprehensive frown as she shifts her attention towards Cideeda. She taps upon the minigun. “I think I could handle more.”

Cideeda lifts her brow and cocks her head unconvinced. “Yeah. We’ll see. It needs a little more testing just to make sure it can handle itself right now... much less a faster firing rate.”

With a disappointed smirk, Dretphi sighs to reluctant agreement. “I understand. Does not matter if I can handle it, if it can not.”

She rolls her shoulders, stretches her back, and hangs the weapon low. “It is still heavy to carry for a long time. Arms are fatigued already.”

Cideeda nods and points her thumb towards the front of the house. “Yeah, we’ll have to figure out some kind of carrying strap or something. I don’t know if I can change or strip anything else quite yet. But, let’s get it back in the shop for now.”

She glances up to Bach with a kind smile, flutters her emerald green eyes, and waves over towards the pile of brass and linkage hardware. “Hey, could you use your magic to gather all that up? Please? I don’t want to have to pick through the grass to find all those bits.”

Bach smirks at the practical solution. “Yeah, not a problem. Making those was pretty mind numbing. You sure they don’t make those links for that caliber?”

Shrugging her shoulders, Cideeda awkwardly smiles and laughs. “Technically, yes. But practically, no. You can special order them from a machine shop, but it’d be real custom job.”

Darting her gaze around, she scratches the back of her head and flicks her furry ears with a slow wag of the tail. “And well... The whole point of rechambering it was for it to use cheaper ammunition, since it’d go through a lot of it.”

Bach nods before the frugal proposal. “I get it.”

Cideeda steps close to Bach and speaks out the side of her mouth. “Also, you are more precise and cost effective for this type of work than any shop I’ve dealt with. Far better turn around time to fix errors, too.”

Rolling his blue eyes playfully, Bach shakes his head sarcastically. “Wow, it’s so nice to be of such use to you.”

Placing her hands on her hips, Cideeda smiles with chuckle and perks her brow. “You’ll be surprised when you I show a few receipts for the custom work I’ve gotten done in the past.”

She swiftly pivots and walks past Dretphi admiring the device in her arms. “Back to the shop.”

Dretphi blinks back to attention and glances over to Bach. “Oh. I am cooking protellow strips for lunch. Do you want yours regular? Crispy?”

Bach ponders a moment and searches his mind. “Pan fried?”

With a proud smirk, Dretphi nods. “Yes.”

Gazing Dretphi, Bach grins eagerly. “Crispy, then.”

Dretphi smiles warmly as she departs. “Good choice.”

After Cideeda and Dretphi depart into the garage with an emerging discussion, Bach surveys the ground near the golden barriers and sighs. Blinking his eyes to a blue glow, he summons up a flow of energy into his hands and glances around. “Alright...”

Orange afternoon sun beams around the front corner of the house and tops of grass blades in the side yard. Bach leans up against the trunk of a tree and closes his eyes, sitting quietly. Wavering bits of shade sway and shift across Bach’s face as the autumn wind blows the branches around. Bach eases out a long exhale, sniffs in the cooler air flowing around him, and slacks his shoulders. Fluttering his eyes open, he briefly winces against the bright sunlight slipping around the shade and turns his head towards the back yard. Watching the tops of the tall grass ripple with the currents of air, Bach relaxes his body gradually and fights back a yawn.

Phasing through the sliding glass back door, Sebastian’s ethereal form glances around the patio and drifts out towards the edge of the brickwork. Searching around the vicinity, he spots Bach idly staring out into the field and hovers over towards him. Coasting down to a seat near his brother, Sebastian quirks his brow. “Taking a post lunch nap, bro?”

Bach blinks his blue eyes back to awareness and settles an amused gaze at Sebastian. “Nah. Just zoning out for a bit.”

He turns his head towards the side yard and points his thumb to a spot of grass. “Missing a few ammo belt links, so I gave the area another sweep.”

Turning his head back from the direction Bach motioned towards, Sebastian furrows his brow. “Find anything?”

Bach shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. “No. So, I decided to sit for a little bit before rummaging around again.”

Sebastian nods, and stares distantly out over the back yard field. Bach idly watches leaves from the nearby forest bounce over the tops of the tall grasses. Breaking a long silence, Sebastian eases out a reverberating sigh and glances over to his brother. “So, bro...”

Bach perks his brow and tilts his head of longer brown hair. “Yes?”

Gritting his teeth, Sebastian works a reluctant frown on his face and groans as the topic arrives. “I just got done talking to mom and dad.”

Tensing up his shoulders, Bach tilts his head up and narrows a wary, inquisitive stare at Sebastian. “Yes?”

Pointing at Bach, Sebastian grimaces and averts his translucent blue eyes. “You’re probably going to get a call and this will be the subject...”

Slumping his shoulders, he hangs his head slightly and grumbles. “Cousin Eddie is in the hospital.”

Cocking his head, Bach leans himself forward from his seat against the tree trunk and blinks at Sebastian. “What happened?”

After a calming breath, Sebastian musters a frown. “He was in an alchemical accident.”

A rush of worry and concern overtakes Bach’s expression, and he leans close to Sebastian. “Oh... Shit... How bad is it?”

Rocking his head side to side, Sebastian gradually clenches his teeth and hisses out a breath. “He’s really lucky and just got some cuts and bruises. But, he’s probably going to go to jail... again...”

Bach blinks blankly and squints at Sebastian. Contorting his face in an annoyed grimace, Sebastian groans with a wince. “The accident happened because he was jacking potions to make them stronger.”

Firmly placing the palm of his hand upon his face, Bach slowly drags his hand down and gawks at Sebastian in utter disbelief. “You got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”

Rolling his eyes, Sebastian grumbles and shakes his head. “No... No... I wish. Really do.”

Bach flops back upon the tree trunk, tilts his head back, and stares upwards in confusion. “Well, what was he doing- Oh gods, he made something blow up didn’t he?”

Sebastian nods slowly, meets his brother’s gaze when he pitches his head down, and grins awkwardly. “He tried to use his hooch still to concentrate a thermally reactive potion.”

Leveling wide eyed shock upon Sebastian, Bach’s jaw hangs open, and he simply gawks. Sebastian shrugs his shoulders and smiles uncomfortably. “Good news! Um, if he asks us to help rebuild his garage... There won’t be any demo involved... Anymore, at least.”

Tipping back, Bach rests his head against the bark of the tree and blinks bewildered. “Gods dammit, Eddie! The hell were you thinking?”

He pauses moment, pulls his head back forward, and focuses his curiosity at Sebastian. “What are the cops going to get him for... Well... This time?”

Sebastian searches his mind uncertainly. “I forgot the exact charges, since I was too busy processing what I saw from the pictures Mom sent to Aristespha’s phone. A bunch of permit and license violations?”

Bach rubs his eyes into a pinch of the bridge of his nose and sighs loudly. “Fuck. Eddie. There’s better ways to make money, man. Come on. I think I actually warned him stuff like that was dangerous, too.”

Resting his arms upon his legs, Bach ponders to himself a moment. He rolls his eyes at himself. “You know, thinking out about it, as much as I’d want to give him grief about being an idiot... I, um... I’ve done A LOT of questionably stupid things in just the last few months alone.”

Sebastian furrows his brow, searches the top of his head, and frowns slightly. “Yeah... I don’t think I should be casting any stones either.”

The two sit quietly with their thoughts for seconds. Bach shudders back to the present and snorts into a laugh. “Gods damn, it’s been a wild few months.”

Chuckling, Sebastian agrees with a nod. “No shit, bro. It’s been nice to take it easy for a bit.”

Bach sighs as he relaxes. “Yeah. Really. Just having a few days in a row without something obviously looming over our heads has been really nice. When all this is done, we REALLY need to take a long vacation.”

Sebastian nods emphatically with a wide eyed gaze. “Oh yeah, bro. That has been planned out a few times over.”

Fighting back an uncertain curl to his frown, Bach grumbles. “We just need to shut this new bullshit down. Then, we can focus on getting you out of the sword.”

He narrows his attention upon Sebastian. “I’ve been getting better at controlling this elder energy I got. So, I could probably just start dumping power into the sword and maybe calculate how much is needed. From there fast track schedule given how well I can handle it.”

Sebastian furrows his brow and tilts up his head of coiffed hair as a wariness colors his tone. “If it’s okay with you, I’d rather stick to the original plan of finding places of power to drain out. It’s easier on you and helps clean up things in the world.”

Bach struggles against a grimace and sighs. “We can do that, too. It’s just that strictly doing that might take a REALLY long time... And, I don’t know how long we can not be actively pursuing Isaac before the Grand Library gets upset.”

With snort, Sebastian’s ghostly form laughs and waves his hand reassuringly at Bach. “Oh, don’t worry about that too much. From the last update Aristespha got, the Grand Library is too busy prying government agencies out of their asses to pay attention to anything else. It’ll be a little while before they can go back to usual business.”

Nodding slowly, Bach eases out a comforted breath and smirks faintly. “Okay. That’s a little relief. But, I still don’t want to just hope we find something undisturbed and full of power.”

Sebastian leans close to Bach and whispers. “I get it. I appreciate it. But, don’t wreck yourself on my behalf. You’ve had way too many close calls pushing yourself too hard. We can always figure some way to bullshit them long enough to get me out of the sword. Worst case, we just won’t return their calls. Make them find us.”

After a silent agreement between the brothers, Sebastian tips his head back. “But gods! I can’t wait to be free of that sword. I don’t think I even want to bring it back to the Grand Library in person. I believe budget rate ground shipping is good enough for that cursed thing.”

Bach grins slyly and chuckles. “Probably cheaper, too.”

Sebastian agrees and smiles with an evil tinge. “Yeah, if they want proper shipping, the Grand Library will have to pay up front.”

Placing his hands behind his head, Bach settles into his seat against the tree trunk. “So... What are you going to use after you send off the sword?”

Crossing his arms, Sebastian straightens his seated posture, rocks his head side to side in deliberation, and hums in thought. “I don’t know exactly. BUT! Nothing ancient and magical. Period. Think I’m good for the rest of my life on those type of weapons.”

With a simple nod, Bach laughs. “Yeah, can’t fault you there. If you need something, I’ll fix it up for you.”

Sebastian scratches the back of his head and ponders out loud. “Thanks, bro. I think I’m going to ask Dretphi for any good smiths that she might know.”

Lifting his eyebrow, Bach tilts his head and eyes Sebastian. “Might see if Chad has a spare Stalwart Sword around. They seemed to have loaded up with a bunch of freebies. He might still have one we could get cheap.”

Pointing Bach, Sebastian strokes his chin. “Not a bad idea.”

His attention wanders and another thought arrives to the front of Sebastian’s mind. “I think they’re wrapping up the show soon. At least, that’s what Aristespha has been hearing from Deedri.”

Bach turns his head towards the far off corner of the back yard lot. He squints his blue eyes and watches glimpses of the two story house through the thick layers of tree branches. Catching a glint of sun light from the distant sliding glass back door, Bach furrows his brow and directs his voice at Sebastian. “When all this shit is over, we should really invite them over just to hang out. I get the feeling we’ll all need something normal and mundane after all these months.”

Sebastian quickly bobs his head in confirmation. “Oh yeah. Definitely should keep in contact in case we get... Well... More normal jobs that require more people.”

Blinking at Sebastian, Bach dons a confused gaze and cocks his head. “More normal?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Sebastian sighs with a playful roll of his eyes. “More typical? I don’t know, bro. It’s hard to define what standard and usual is in this line of work. When exploring ancient ruins to see if something monster-like has moved in is a standard grade assignment, how do you gauge what is normal from that in comparison to everything else?”

Bach snorts to a laugh and smiles at his brother. “Yeah, fair enough.”

Plodding around the small bedroom, Gerald glances over the line up of open equipment cases, carrying bags, and soft suitcases. Searching around him, he picks up a capped camera lens, and squints at the etched markings. Pivoting slowly around, he holds the device out. He stops facing an equipment case, and places the lens inside the fabric padded interior next to other optics.

Stretching out his back, he wanders his attention out the glass pane doors and observes the late afternoon light radiating off the balcony railing. The tops of scarcely leaved trees shudder with the cool rushes of autumn breezes through their branches. Stepping through the doorway, Gerald combs his fingers through his short, dark blonde hair and blinks his dark brown eyes. Pulling a long breath, he relaxes his shoulders, and glances around the balcony. He sweeps up a large glass with a few tea bags in a light brown brew. Reaching back through the door, picks up a glass bottle and pours a clear mix into the sun-brewed tea. Faint translucent ripples flow out from within the solution and fade away when Gerald swirls the contents into a blend. Studying the drink for a moment, Gerald tips back the beverage, pauses in thought, and smiles satisfied. “Just right.”

Placing the glass bottle back upon a desk, he stands quietly on the balcony and stares out to shifting season before him. Calmly sipping his tea, he closes his eyes while the light radiates upon him. From the stairwell on the other side of the room, Samantha appears from the dark corridor, and her hazel eyes search around the room. She finally spots Gerald through the balcony doorway and calls out. “There you are! How are you doing?”

Gerald slowly opens his eyes, grimaces into a smirk, and places his drink down on the railing. Gradually pivoting around, he presents a short smile to Samantha, steps into the small bedroom, and walks over to his bed. “Fine. Just sorting through everything. Just sorting through equipment and checking to see what is mine and what is the company’s.”

Samantha raps her fingers upon her clipboard, glances between the different containers, and nods her head of shoulder-length brown hair. “I see. Um, that might be difficult.”

Cracking a wry smirk, Gerald perks his brow and chuckles as he sits down on the top of the bed. “Oh, not really. Turns out if there’s any old water stains, dried slime, caked on dirt, plasma scorching, or browned specks of blood... It probably belongs to the company. Anything with minor scratches and wear marks is typically mine.”

Clenching her jaw uneasily, Samantha nervously chuckles and flips through some paperwork on her clipboard. “Huh. Yeah, I guess that would make it easy. So...”

She pulls out a neatly stapled packet of paper, and presents it to Gerald with a wide smile. “I just got approval from Howie to give this to you. We think it’d just might change your mind.”

Furrowing his brow, Gerald takes the document in hand, examines the cover, and flips up the first page. His eyes quickly scan over the literature and pause at bolded points. Samantha continues to stand quietly and patiently waits. Flipping through a legalese dense section, Gerald snaps his attention upon a page of summarized numbers and figures. Nodding as he studies the literature, intrigue lifts his eyebrow. “Wow. That’s not a bad pay bump, and certainly really improved the benefits.”

Working an amused smirk on his light tan face, he cocks his head to the side glances over to Samantha. “You pulled out all the stops on this one. I will say I do appreciate the effort.”

Flopping back over the pages upon the remainder of the document, he stares at the offer in hand and rocks his head side to side in deliberation. “Truthfully, if this had come a month or so sooner. It wouldn’t have taken long for me to sign it. But...”

Samantha’s grin wanes to a fading smile. Gerald frowns faintly, hands the document back to Samantha, and sighs as cool acceptance reveals itself. “I’m done.”

Blinking out her confusion, Samantha uncertainly grips hold of the pack of paper, and furrows her brow incredulously. “What do you mean-”

Slapping his hands upon the knees of his pants, Gerald grins nonchalantly and laughs. “I’m done with this shit show. I- I just... I just don’t know how to put it any clearer. I am just done.”

Fighting a rush of emotions, Samantha crosses her arms and focuses a stare at Gerald. “Come on! You don’t mean that. This show has been good for the both of us, and it’s still got a lot left to give. There’s a new season coming up, and you’ll have plenty of time to rest up before that. You’ve put in so many years with this series, that you just can’t give it up now.”

She wrestles down a grimace as her tone pleads. “The team needs you. I need you. Even Howie needs you. You’re always the one camera guy I can count on to get the best shots to salvage the worst episodes. You have special talent for this line of work.”

Straightening his posture out with a long breath in, he shakes his head and chuckles. “Wow. Again, I appreciate the kind words to butter me up. But, give me a few moments, so I can explain something.”

Samantha darts her hazel eyes around the room and confirms with a nod. Gerald smiles calmly and stretches his arms. “Okay. First, you and Howard have a good thing. I was just along for the ride after a certain point. I’ve always been a useful tool to make whatever plans you all had work out. In the beginning, I was compensated decently and honestly the work wasn’t that bad. But... That changed.”

He focuses his stare through Samantha. “What started out as a show making fun of wannabes that had no business adventuring has turned into a whole exercise of setting desperate people up for disaster. I had no problem letting incompetent, arrogant morons naturally screw up on their own with the simplest things. But, we now prey upon those who are just trying to make things happen the best they can. And, what’s worse... We have been putting them in gods damned dangerous situations that have almost gotten ALL OF US KILLED.”

Samantha tightens her grip upon her clipboard as her posture stiffens. Gerald shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “I’m sorry. I like to sleep at night, and sabotaging some people making honest efforts doesn’t let me do that. Also, given how the last few quests have gotten, this show is NOT WORTH DYING FOR.”

He lays back upon a pile of clothes on his bed next to a nicely made camera bag, and smirks. “So, really... I’m done with this line of work. Time to find something better to do with my time on this planet.”

Maintaining a tight smile, Samantha grants a simple, stiff nod, and huffs out a disappointed breath. “Okay. Yes. I understand your position.”

She fights against an irritated snarl of her upper lip and eases out a calming breath as shudders of frustration slip out. “I just want YOU to UNDERSTAND how serious we are to keep you with the company. So, let ME explain...”

While Samantha’s tone wanders between a counteracting mix of pleading and demanding, Gerald’s gaze drifts around the room. While Samantha’s explanation morphs into a self-distracting rant, Gerald stares out the balcony doorway. Blinking to attention, he squints through the late afternoon light and notices a fluttering around a glass glint. His eyes widen in surprise as a tiny green feathered hummingbird hovers around the partially filled glass of tea. While keeping the rest of his body still, Gerald deftly retrieves his camera from a nearby carrying case, flips it on to the exact mode, and raises it up into position. Peeking through the viewfinder, he swiftly adjusts the lens, lines up the shot, and waits. The moment the hummingbird flits around to the side of the glass in a clear light, he holds down the button. The camera repeatedly clicks while Gerald tweaks the position, zoom, and focus.

Samantha’s voice peaks with her ongoing bid for Gerald’s attention, and the hummingbird zips away. Gerald sorts through the images the view screen. A satisfied smile emerges as he examines fresh picture.

Moonlight shines down through hazy gaps between darker clouds above. Glistening specks shimmer upon the vast open field. Shadows drift over the flowing tops of long unkempt grass. Flecks of light zip beneath the surface of the green waves. Shapes flit into reality, and faint visages coast over the area. Sparks of glowing life zip up into the sky and chaotically fly around the flat expanse of land. From the furthest edge of the open plains, a red mist condenses upon a swelling point. Crimson light beams out and a rush of magical miasma plumes out of a widening portal. A slender figure with wispy flows of energy swirling around it steps out. Hovering out from the portal, it studies vast field and stares out along the horizon.

Spites dart around over head and larger spirits fade into view. The slender figure acknowledges the beings and narrows an intrigued gaze. Slowly pivoting, the ethereal being hums softly and watches the swells of magical light fluttering through the grasses.

Sparks of energy crackle out from new points and portals open wide with plumes of reddish smoke. A tall, broad imposing being appears with a flicking orange light. Emerging from another portal, an angular being with an viridian aura follows behind smokey humanoid figure. The group converges and a quiet discussion blends in with the drone of wind sifting through the wavering bristles of grass.

After moments of motion and gesturing by the group, Akalab materializes fully and stands near the deliberating arch spirits. The imposing figure stands away from the gathering, gazes out upon the vast plain, and holds his hands out. A translucent burst of energy bubbles out and warps into a wave sinking deep into the land. Quietly, the ensemble watch. Straightening out his posture as surprise rises, the tall, broad being nods to the group.

Flitting wide it’s yellow eyes, the smokey, robed entity releases a long, frustrated sigh. “So... Such does exist. That is a problem.”

The slender being’s wispy energy flows shudder, and it turns to the awaiting Akalab. “Please, inform them of this location.”

Slowing turning its head, it points over to a swarm of sprites circling around a tree among a long, ancient row. “They will want to inspect that tree.”

Akalab nods, spins around promptly, and walks quickly away as he fades into the night. The arch spirits return to their portals. They grant one last acknowledgment to each other and disappear into the warping, crimson void beyond.

The remaining specks of light disperse out to the perimeter of the vast open track of land. Spirits fly off towards distant surrounding woods. And the last traces of magic fade, leaving only the faint beams of moonlight slipping in through the hazy clouds above.